When I was seven, my twenty-year-old cousin was old, which made my forty-year-old aunt very old and my grandmother positively ancient. Age was relative – relative to me. If I were to apply this same logic today, I’d have just passed the ‘very old’ mark and would be making slow but steady progress towards antiquity.
I have an inbuilt ‘carbon-dating’ mechanism when it comes to putting an age on something, or someone. It doesn’t work very well; I’m rarely right. But that doesn’t stop me from attempting to date stamp people, places, and things. I grew up with expressions that lent credence and respect to the ageing process and helped somehow to give register to age: as old as Methuselah, as old as the hills, as old as humanity. The fact that I didn’t know who Methuselah was, or which hills, or when humanity actually began was irrelevant. These expressions gave voice to the sentiment that age could be referenced; it could be put into context without having to know the exact ‘when’.
Age is relative
The concept of age fascinates me, not so much as a labelling device but more as a testimony to endurance. In today’s throw-away society, there’s something very comforting in knowing that some things have been around…well, forever. They have a fixed place in our collective memory, and indeed in the memories of all those who have gone before us.
On my register, Hinduism is the oldest religion; Damascus is the oldest city; and wrestling is the oldest sport. Ireland has the oldest known fields in the world (the céide fields which come complete with original stone walls); Hungary has the second oldest metro system; and Oxford , the third oldest university. It wasn’t until I moved to the USA that I fully appreciated the newness of old. I lived in Longview, Washington, a city the same age as Northern Ireland. The idea of someone planning and building a city as recently as 1921 surprised me. I visited a plantation house in South Carolina with furniture roped off to preserve it because it was so old; that same furniture would have looked at home in my grandmother’s sitting room.
Words like ‘vintage’ and ‘antique’ hold a certain appeal for me. The Hungarian word antikvárium trips off the tongue with the same sprightliness as the English word antiquarian, despite there being a world of difference between second-hand and antique.
Standing the test of time
I’m used to old. I like old. And some days, I feel old. And yet, despite my penchant for all things aged, my first visit to the megalithic Mnajdra temples in Malta left me strangely unmoved. It was perhaps their crudity: post and lintel construction with large slabs of limestone? Yep, about as interesting as a pile of rocks in a field. Ditto with Ħaġar Qim. I learned something new about myself. ‘Old’ has to go hand in hand with ‘interesting’ – age for age’s sake just doesn’t cut it anymore. So when a friend suggested visiting the hypogeum at Ħal-Saflieni, I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit. Malta and her ruins just weren’t registering!
The hypogeum is an underground temple consisting of three floors with a series of interconnecting chambers, the most stunning of which is the ‘Holy of Holies’, a beautifully carved replica of a temple facade. Hewn from rock using stone hammers, chisels, flint blades, and antler picks nearly 5000 years ago, it is a true testament to patience and perseverance. It personifies the best of both words – old and interesting. When it was first discovered, back in 1902, the remains of over 7000 people were found deep in its chambers. But even more amazing still, it’s in the middle of the town of Paola, down a side street, beneath a row of houses!
Eyes to heaven
When I walk, I tend to look up, at gargoyles, at rooftops, at church steeples. But since my visit to the hypogeum, I’ve been thinking a little more about what I might be walking over. Little did I know that all those times I walked across the Charles Bridge in Prague I was actually walking on eggshells. Or that while strolling along Via Appia in Rome , a parallel world of catacombs snaked beneath my feet. Strolling through the old city of Mdina last week I was surprised to hear that there is an old Roman city lying underground.
It’s made me look at Budapest in a new light. So much of what I see in this city is above ground: spectacular buildings, contemporary graffiti, myriad statues. But what lies beneath? Underground? Is there a depth to this city, as is so often found in her people, that remains largely unexplored?
First published in the Budapest Times 27 February 2011